There’s a distinct lack of games that attempt to portray religious events. There’s plenty of games that are influenced stylistically by religious iconography or weave religion into their narrative but there’s no Jesus: The Video Game. Considering the huge amount of religious people in the world and the significance of religious stories within our collective culture it does seem odd that video games have never attempted to approach the subject.
Other forms of media certainly have, the story of Jesus has been told in films such as Jesus and the more recent Passion of the Christ, as well as novels such as Christ the Lord by Anne Rice. Judaism has epics such as The Ten Commandments. Islam too has films such Mohammad, Messenger of God. Even Hinduism has films such as Meera.
Yet video games as a medium have comparatively nothing close to this. There are some very rudimentary games, for example the Bible Adventures for the NES, although rather than an intelligent exploration of the subject matter it’s an almost cynically produced clone of better and more popular games, marketed towards concerned Christian parents that resembles nothing more than an expensive children’s book. There’s a small group of developers attempting to create Christian games but they tend to be stiff trivia games or forced titles such as the above.
So why hasn’t anybody made a video game depicting the life of Jesus, or Muhammad or Krishna? Are games simply not a suitable medium to portray such a thing or have the right people simply not collaborated yet?
Do we even need triple A games about religion? We have plenty of games that make use of religion as an aspect of their plot or for visual aesthetics and as I’ve discussed many of them do this rather well. So we could say that video games are already a suitable medium to explore the topic of religion. What I’m going to look at is not so much religion being used as a theme in a game but the actual stories behind religion, originally told in various holy texts, and why they never seem to be portrayed within games.
The primary aspect that separates video games from other forms of media is the interactive element. There’s the visual aspect too, but interactivity is forefront to the experience. Perhaps this is an indicator as to why it’s difficult to make a game about religious figures.
Take Passion of the Christ and imagine trying to create a video game of it. Would you take the role of Roman soldiers brutally beating Christ within an inch of his life? Would you play as Christ and have the game culminate in your torture and death? It could fit into being told in a similar manner to games such as Heavy Rain but even that allows you to interact and change the story whereas the biblical narrative of Christ is pretty set in stone. Could you opt to refuse the sacrifice and flee? What would the actual meat of the game be?
Christ is inherently a pacifistic figure yet the majority of games use violence to resolve conflict and to give the player something to do. Moses might be a better figure, he was at least happy to get his hands dirty in massacring the Midian tribes and leading his people out of Egypt. But if you can control a character directly you can question their motivation and the morality of their actions from a far more personal perspective, and in doing so these holy figures may lose their aura of mysticism entirely.
There’s a tone of blasphemy to all of this – depicting religious figures in film is one thing, but is actually controlling them going too far? It would certainly be impossible to create a game about the formation of Islam that depicts Muhammad himself due to it being forbidden to depict him in any form under Islam. The incident with the Danish cartoon demonstrates that it’s not something the Islamic world takes kindly too. You would have to play an outside observer to the events that take place.
Of course, then you would become as passive to those events as a video camera and hence the key element of video games, the interactivity, would be lost. You would be relegated to the side-lines simply because the topic of religion will not allow you to play a central role in the narrative. Does this make creating a game that depicts religious events in an entertaining manner for the player an impossibility? Not necessarily, but it’s a step that needs to be overcome.
This does raise the idea of a game based around these events that, rather than praise them, uses them as a tool to criticize. Witnessing and taking part in, say, the ten plagues of Egypt as you paint crosses on the doors knowing that the babies will be slaughtered certainly would make you raise an emotive eyebrow at the reasoning behind your actions and if they’re really good at all. Of course, now we’re talking about Richard Dawkins: The Video Game, but it’s an interesting angle to take in creating something that approaches the subject matter.
Video games are young as a medium and so still not considered by many, such as film critic Robert Egbert, as a valid art form but rather as an entertaining toy. If this is the case, it could explain why the stories of revered figures at the foundation of religions have never been told in a game. This isn’t to say video games are not an art form but simply that they’re not perceived as one. This perception means that nobody is going to approach games with a topic that does require a degree of sensitivity and intelligence in order to portray it in an artistic manner if they just see video games as glorified toys. As more and more games prove that they can indeed be artistic this stereotype is fading, but it’s one that will sadly still linger on and, perhaps as with the comic industry, never truly fade away.
All this talk of art is nice, but games need to be marketable to get off of the ground at all. For one, an original game is hard to create as established sequels are much safer for publishers to produce rather than a new IP. A religious topic is always going to attract controversy, making it an even riskier proposition for publisher.
Then there’s audience – games are marketed towards a very young demographic, and studies show that religion simply isn’t interesting to them. No market means nobody has any incentive to produce a product that simply will not sell well. Game budgets are incredibly huge, and so to invest in one you’re going to hope for some sort of a return – which the subject matter may simply not be able to provide.
There’s hope within the burgeoning indie scene as they’re not constrained by the concerns of publishers and are happy to market towards niche audiences as they don’t need to make huge returns.
It seems looking at these factors that we’re a long way off from a game about leading the Israelites through the desert or Jesus raising the dead, as fun as that could be. It may be the case that we simply don’t need games about religion; just because film has it doesn’t mean that games also need it before that can be considered serious, artistic, or adult . Games are their own unique medium and shouldn’t feel pressured to go in a certain direction simply to justify themselves to society.